By Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH
When the de Beaumont Foundation first launched the Public Health Workforce Interests and Needs Survey (PH WINS) in 2014, we didn’t know what to expect, but with the release of our 2017 survey, two themes have become clear: 1) the workforce is composed of dedicated, skilled professionals who want to make a difference and 2) the field is threatened by a high rate of turnover. If governmental public health professionals leave, who will be left to protect the public’s health?
The de Beaumont Foundation and ASTHTO created PH WINS to fill a notable knowledge gap in national data on the governmental public health agency workforce. Before PH WINS, data were collected only at the agency level or within specific health departments, so it wasn’t possible to identify national trends, gaps, or opportunities. For the 2017 survey, we expanded the data collection to a representative sample of local governmental public health agencies, giving us an even more thorough picture of the workforce.
From 2014 to 2017, the number of people who said they plan to leave their organization within the next five years increased by 41 percent. Nearly half the workforce could leave – by retiring or leaving the field of public health entirely – and that loss of specialized skills and experience could be devastating to American communities.
Our hope is that health agencies and other leaders will use this data to invest in the workforce – to improve retention, attract new talent, and expand training to prepare today’s workforce for the needs of the future. See the report for information on demographics, training needs, and intent to leave.
The public health field needs support and investment, but making governmental public health a priority must begin by educating Americans about the role and value of the workforce. The work they do touches lives in every community across the country, but few people understand that.
However, research shows that Americans overwhelmingly value public health services protections. In a recent survey commissioned by the de Beaumont Foundation, two-thirds of Americans said they believe every community should enjoy basic public health services, including protection against communicable diseases, emergency response, clean air and water, and maternal and child health services. A full 57 percent of voters said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes to ensure communities have access to these and other basic public health services. But when asked about which organizations play an important role in creating healthy communities, respondents ranked public health departments behind hospitals, schools, fire departments, and police departments.
When there’s a natural disaster or outbreak, our ability to mitigate the impact will be dictated by the strength of the governmental public health workforce. As PH WINS shows, that means our nation, states, and communities must prioritize and support the workforce. We now know the challenges. The question is, what will we do about them?